Remembering Baghdad

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Remembering Baghdad

Last week saw London’s Barbican Centre open its doors to its second evening of contemporary music from the Middle East this year. The concert was part of Transcender, a music festival now its its fourth year, which began as an attempt to celebrate the Islamic trance music of Asia and the Middle East, but which this year has included Western music that equally seeks to explore and amaze.

With tickets sold out a few days before the performance, the auditorium was filled with members of the Iraqi diaspora in London, as well as a large number of fans from across London’s diverse community. Presenting the concert was Majid Shokor, an Iraqi writer and researcher who is in the process of completing the documentary film On the Banks of the Tigris, which comes from a canonical maqām by Iraqi Jew Salima Murad, and from which the concert took its name.

Shokor’s aim was to unravel the richness of Iraq’s musical heritage through the eyes of the country’s Jewish community, who have played a major role in shaping and defining some of the key traditions of Iraqi music, including the maqām. A genre of music, the maqām conventionally constitutes an ensemble where a poem is sung to a specific melodic scale by a qāri’ (translated literally as reader, but denoting a singer, suggesting an elevated form of music that is artistically refined and sophisticated as well as entertaining) and using specific instruments including a santūr (hammered dulcimer), jūza (spike fiddle), dunbuk (goblet drum) and occasionally riqq (tambourine). Underpinning this unravelling is an attempt to celebrate the musical and cultural contributions from across Iraq’s ethnic and religious spectrum to promote a message of peace and cohabitation, currently under threat in the midst of atrocious sectarian violence in this former cradle of civilisation.

The key Iraqi figures of the maqām genre whose works were revisited in the concert include Saleh al-Kuwaity, a well-renowned Iraqi Jewish composer and ‘oud player, as well as Riyadh Ahmad, Salima Murad, Nadhim al-Ghazali and many others.

The concert opened with London-based ‘oud player Ahmed Mukhtar performing “The Hanging Gardens” alongside qānūn player Jamil Alasadi and percussionist Abdullatif S. Abdullatif Al-Obaidi. Other innovative compositions by Mukhtar included dūlāb rast, samā’i hijāzī, “Sufi Moments”, chūbī and “Gypsy Dance” the latter of which was a thrillingly fast-paced performance, pleasing the eager audience.

On the Banks Tigris was a vocal and visual example of how Iraq’s culture can help to bring people together

This was followed by Israeli-born violinist Yair Dalal and his ensemble including vocalist, ney or flute player Rabbi David Menahem, ‘oud player, vocalist Ronny Dalal and percussionist, darbuka player and vocalist Herzel Sagi. Dalal opened his performance with warm greetings of “shalom”, “salam” and “good evening”, expressing his heartfelt happiness that his dream of playing with other musicians from Iraq’s various communities has finally come true and that he hopes for this dream to be fulfilled in Iraq.

He began with “Prayer for peace” in the maqām dashti style, but the audience were nostalgically moved when Dalal’s melodic performance was joined in by Menahem’s beautiful singing of the canonical “Alhajer mu ‘āda gharība”, “Desertion is not a strange habit”, composed by Salah al-Kuwaity and originally sung by the Iraqi Jewish Salima Murad in the maqām allāmī form. The audience continued to be flown further into the depths of the land of the two rivers with the song “Ya nab’ al rayhān” by Salima Murad and composed by Saleh al-Kuwaity. The audience were so transfixed that they started ululating in the middle of the performance, designating a crumbling of standard formalities and an utter immersion in the feel of the music.

What made Dalal and his ensemble even more innovative was the performance of a specifically Hebrew metamorphosis of the Iraqi maqām tradition, where Menahem sang passionately in Hebrew. The audience did not mind this at all, continuing to clap as if linguistic and religious barriers were not an issue.

After an interval of fifteen minutes in which the audience rushed to thank the various musicians and hoarded the foyer to purchase CDs, Farida Mohammad Ali and the Iraqi Maqam Ensemble took up the stage. Gracefully dressed in a long traditional Iraqi turquoise jalabiyya, or gown, Farida ardently read – reading is the correct verb used to designate the vocal performance of the maqām – maqāms such as “Hilwa ya bnayya” or “Pretty girl” to which the audience joined in, encouraged by Farida’s requests.

The evening optimistically ended in a group collaboration between all the musicians; they contrapuntally read “Hātha mū insāf minnak’” “You’re not being fair” and “’Ala shawati’ dijla”, “On the banks of the Tigris”. A vocal and visual example of how Iraq’s culture can help to bring people together, the concert was a success with the musicians having earned the audience’s uncontrollable cheers and an ear-splitting applause.

Siba Aldabbagh is a PhD student London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, where she is researching the dialogic relationship between Arabic poetry and art in the works of six contemporary Iraqi artists. She is a regular contributor to the London-based Iraqi newspaper Azzaman and the Middle Eastern journal Contemporary Practices: Visual Arts from the Middle East. She is author of Epiphamania, a collaborative work with Saudi photographer Nora Alissa published by The Gasket Gallery and Velvet Cell.